Senate ends logjam over McConnell roads bill

Senate ends logjam over McConnell roads bill
© Greg Nash

The Senate late Wednesday voted to move forward with a six-year federal highway bill, giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellAACR’s march on Washington Poll: Dems have enthusiasm edge for 2018 The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE a significant victory even as his legislation encounters stiff opposition from his own party in the House.

In a 62-36 vote, the Senate agreed to begin debate on the legislation.

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A day after voting against the motion, liberal and centrist Democrats provided the crucial votes to advance the bill, brokered by McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerAnother day, another dollar for retirement advice rip-offs Carly Fiorina 'certainly looking at' Virginia Senate run Top Obama adviser signs with Hollywood talent agency: report MORE (D-Calif.).

Only six Republicans voted against the motion, compared to 11 a day earlier —including McConnell, who did so to preserve his ability to bring the bill up for another vote.

The vote signals that McConnell likely has the support to move the legislation through the Senate, something he’s vowed to do even if it requires keeping senators in Washington this weekend.

That would set up a confrontation with the House, where Republicans are backing a five-month extension of federal highway funding that they’ve already approved.

The Senate bill’s path appeared rocky earlier in the day after several meetings failed to win Democratic support for the legislation. 

McConnell, intent on passing what would be the first long-term highway bill since 2005, whipped Democratic votes throughout the afternoon. 

Democrats and Republicans in the lower chamber united in objecting to the Senate bill on Wednesday, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying it wouldn’t fly. 

“There’s ways to deal with it. You can go to conference. We can do ours,” he told reporters following a private House GOP conference meeting. “But I don’t see the Senate [bill] flying in the House.”

Rank-and-file House conservatives bashed the Senate bill for relying on raising revenue rather than cutting spending to cover the costs.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading House conservative. “If you’re not going to pay for it and it’s got tax increases in it, of course we’re against that. Our leadership has been pretty strong. Look at what the Ways and Means chairman has said. Look at what the majority leader has said.”

McConnell has pledged to allow a vote on an amendment to the highway bill that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, something that would also raise objections in the House.

Jordan said that whatever passes the Senate should not include a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

House Democratic leaders also began lining up against the McConnell-Boxer bill, objecting to its revenue provisions.

“In my 22-plus years here in Congress, I’ve never seen a situation where there’s been so much political angst about doing what we need to do to get people to pay for their use of our roads and highways and mass transit system,” Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraSunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark House Hispanic PAC breaks fundraising record Gomez advances to runoff in California House race MORE (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said after a closed-door meeting of his caucus in the Capitol.

He highlighted a proposal that would take money from the Social Security trust fund, arguing that any tweaks to the retirement benefit program should go toward bolstering it.

“I’ll be darned if I’m going to let someone take money that’s for Social Security to use it [on highways] because they’re not willing to do the right thing to impose a user fee so we can fix our roads,” he said.

Liberals in the Senate have also raised objections to that provision, raising questions over whether it could be tweaked.

McConnell’s plans for weekend work suggest he intends to jam the House by passing the six-year measure and then daring the House not to pass it, with just days until federal infrastructure funding expires at the end of the month.

McCarthy and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanSunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark Ryan: Focus is on keeping government open, not healthcare GOP lawmakers told they’re inching closer to ObamaCare repeal deal MORE (R-Wis.) are pushing for the Senate to accept a five-month patch for highway funding — approved by the House last week — that would give them more time to negotiate a fully paid-for, six-year highway bill.

The last time McConnell tried to jam the House, on legislation extending the National Security Agency’s surveillance authority, it didn’t work. A coalition of conservatives and Democrats rebuffed him in his own chamber by defeating his preferred version of the bill.

“This is starting to look a lot like the second coming of FISA,” said a senior Democratic aide, referring to a law that authorizes covert surveillance. “There’s no clear plan. The Republicans running for president are champing at the bit to advance their presidential campaigns at the expense of their leader, and McConnell and [Speaker John] BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE [R-Ohio] seem to be on different planets.”

The Export-Import Bank remains a huge bone of contention for conservatives in both chambers. 

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall Obama-linked group launches ads targeting Republicans on immigration MORE (R-Texas), who is running for president, says he will use all tools at his disposal to block an amendment to the highway bill that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which saw its charter expire last month.

McConnell has promised to give supporters of the bank, such as vulnerable GOP incumbent Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkThe way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump ObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood MORE (Ill.), a chance to vote on it.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the White House will “insist” that the highway bill includes language reauthorizing the bank.

During an event with small-business leaders in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Obama warned “we cannot unilaterally disarm” by shuttering the export-financing agency while foreign competitors still receive government subsidies.  

Conservatives have worked for years to kill the bank and gave little indication Wednesday they would vote for a highway bill that brings it back to life.

“It’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people,” said Rep. John FlemingJohn FlemingCoast Guard suspends search for missing Ohio plane Freedom Caucus member to bring up bill on impeaching IRS chief GOP seeks to make it 52 MORE (R-La.).  

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE (R-Ky.), another presidential candidate, wants to attach an amendment to the bill blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Mike Lillis contributed.

This story was updated at 8:43 p.m.